My husband and I were in Italy –mainly Rome– for the month of April although we forayed into Umbria with a visit to Orvieto and went back to Tivoli, this time not to see the famous gardens but to amble through Villa Adriana, an amazing city-like complex close to two thousand years old and fairly well preserved. Read my posts on our travels there on my other blog, The Other Word.
Since on our arrival we had gone north-east to the Colosseum, we decided to walk this time to the north-west, in a great big circle that would take us through several piazzas and, of course, fountains.
One of the things I remember about Rome, and which charmed me the most, is its fountains. Water, water everywhere. Rome’s water system was one of the wonders of the world, and it still is. From the magnificent Fontana di Trevi to the nasoni (meaning big nose because of the shape of their spout), water flows constantly, pure, fresh, and drinkable. The fountain basins are clean and free of debris and the water sparkles through to the bottom. It comes from deep springs and is as pure as mineral water. It amazed me that I could find, all of a sudden, a nasone with continuously running water where I could fill my bottle with cold water and drink my fill.
Romans are great drinkers of water. In any restaurant, to ask for a liter of acqua minerale for two is normal. You have a choice of naturale or frizzante. That last word always made me want to giggle because it resembles the French word “friser”, meaning “to curl”. And indeed, the sparkling water makes your tongue curl up.
We took the tram (number “8”) to Torre Argentina. Taking public transport in Rome is an experience. It’s not only necessary to buy a ticket, but you also need to validate it once you’re on the bus or tram or train. In truth, very few seem to do it, and during the time we were there, we saw inspectors only once. The fines are steep if you get caught without a ticket, though, so it’s not a good idea to hop a but without a ticket. Tickets are also valid for 75 minutes, regardless of how many transports you take, from the time of validation. We were very impressed with the public transportation system; many buses, passing by often, were the norm, although we were in the center of town, which may be different than the suburbs.
We started with Piazza Navona, which I found somewhat disappointing, maybe because it was empty of people. (We went back another day in the afternoon and it was packed. The atmosphere was quite different). The oval piazza is dotted with three huge fountains, the middle one, being restored while we were there, topped with an obelisk. It is the Fontana dei Fiumi, designed by Bernini which, of course, we couldn’t see. At each end, the Fontana del Moro and the Fontana del Nettuno, impressive in their own right.
We then went by the church of Sant’Angostino to have a look at Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto, a beautiful painting that created a furore because he had depicted Jesus’s mother with bare feet, resembling any woman. The painting is indeed beautiful and moving, modestly set in a side apse, as it not to detract from the sanctity of the church itself, which was very quiet and dignified. We sat in the pew for a few moments, absorbing the quiet of the place.
( Day 2 continues in the next post. Aren’t you glad we were there for a month?)
Rome, Day One
Exhausted as we were, we couldn’t wait to go out and explore a bit. From our trusty map, we knew that most of the sights weren’t that far as the crow flies, so we decided to head towards the Colosseum.
We crossed the Ponte Testaccio (one of the seven main bridges that link one side of the Tiber to the other) and walked for a while along the Lungotevere Testaccio to Via Marmorata. This is a broad avenue that hugs the Tiber delimited from the river by a chest-high wall, and tall trees. On the other side, housing complexes (I hesitate to call them apartment buildings as we know them here in Canada) side-by-side, with tall windows, some closed with rolling outside blinds. It’s very quiet, with little traffic, but on each side of the street, every inch is lined with cars. The cars are small, and brands we don’t see often in our country: Lancia, Fiat, Peugeot, Opel, and, of course, dozens upon dozens of SmartCars.
The water of the Tiber is a cloudy jade green, with lots of current. It’s not really a pretty river here, caged at it is between high walls. We walk to the Ponte Sublicio turn onto Via Marmorata. Surprisingly, because I never thought of Rome as tropical, palm trees and bamboo grow along pine and a tree that resembles maple. But it’s the pines, here, that take our breath away. They are majestic and incredibly beautiful against blue sky. Throughout our trip, we saw them everywhere, and could not tire of them.
We walked down Marmorata to Piazza San Paolo which, we learned later from experience, is one of the traffic hubs in Rome. It’s a major metro stop, a train station, an important stop for buses, and somewhat of a roundabout for cars. Even on Sunday, it was pretty busy. We promptly got lost, a fact that would happen more times than we cared to count during our month there. “Lost” when you’re on holiday and exploring isn’t a big thing. We sort of roamed for a while, then I went to a newspaper stand and asked directions to the Colosseum. I nearly burst out laughing: for a moment, the man had to orient himself before he could point us in the right direction. We walked along the Viale della Piramide Cestia, leaving behind most of the traffic (especially in the direction of the airport) then Viale Aventino, its name taken from the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, the Aventino (40 meter high), which led us to the Circo Massimo, built around 600BC. The Circo, where Romans use to race their chariots in daredevil races (remember Ben Hur?) is HUGE, certainly half a kilometer long (1,875 roman feet). The length of a race was seven circuits. With seats all around, it could accommodate from 150,000 to 385,000 spectators. That’s more than some of our stadia here!
The Via di San Gregorio led us to the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine, as we walked along the Forii Imperiali and part of the Foro Romano. Seeing the Colosseum rise as we approached it, and rise, and rise, until it is truly colossal, was an awe-inspiring experience. In spite of the hundreds of tourist roaming around the Piazza del Colosseo, or maybe because of it, its size is imposing; you feel the weight of the years here, but also the sheer genius of those architects and builders who raised a monument that lasted over a thousand years. It is 50 meters (164 feet) high and its total circumference is 545 meters (1,790 feet).
We gaped for an hour, then decided to stop for a bite to eat then return to the apartment, by then having walked several kilometers. Later, I sat on the balcony, and listened to the sounds that were to become familiar after a month: car traffic, honks, people’s voices echoing up, and the clanking sound of pans as supper was prepared. The sky was clear, the air redolent of cooking smells and the particular scent that is Rome, indescribable but oh so recognizable.
Since we were to stay in Rome for a month, we took an apartment for the duration. We wanted somewhere away from the main tourist area, but close enough that we didn’t waste a lot of time in transit back and forth. After some research, I found an apartment in Trastevere (literally — across the Tiber) close to Viale Trastevere.
We had our instructions: from the airport, go to Fiumicino Train Station, take the local train to Trastevere Station, then up Viale Trastevere to the apartment. After a quick call to our landlord so she could meet us there (she warns us there’s a flea market going on around the apartment) we take the train.
Wanting to take the train is an experience in itself. It’s Sunday morning and the station is half-full, but it’s a small station, with three train tracks that end there. There are no indications in English, anywhere. Where there are signs, they are so obscure as to be barely intelligible. There is an information counter but there is a line-up and I know our train must leave soon. The ticket office is also open, with a line-up. Right beside the ticket office is a man sitting behind a dais with Express written on the front, coins and a billing pad in front of him. I take my courage in hand, go to him, and ask in my heavily accented Italian:
“Due bliggliette, per favore.”
The man, all without looking at me, writes up a ticket, takes my money (11 euros), and dismisses me.
Now I have a ticket (I’m not even sure it’s a legal one) but I have no idea which binario (track) to go to. I squeeze in between some people at the info counter, and ask my question:
“Il binario per Stazione Trastevere?”
Without looking at me, she points to the leftmost track. By this time, I’m beginning to think that Romans don’t really like tourists. (They don’t –more on that later– but it wasn’t the case here. By observing many salespeople, I noticed they are this way with pretty much everyone.)
Three minutes later, the train is announced — in Italian. It rolls in. I goggle. Up to head level, there is not one inch of the train that doesn’t sport graffiti. Large, in color or in black, some of them even cover the windows.
Ironically, since the trip ends at the Fiumicino Station, where the airport is located, the train isn’t set up for travelers with big suitcases. The train is two-story, with lanes so narrow no suitcase will fit. We carry them by the handle but have to place them on a seat because there is no stowage space. I begin to think that most tourists do not take the train but some other form of transportation. (Later in the month, I surmised that the local train to Fara Sabina, which we took, was a commuter train)
We arrive at Stazione Trastevere around 12pm, pretty much exhausted at that point. We’ve been up for more than 30 hours and are looking forward to dumping the luggage and taking a shower. The apartment is only three blocks from the station, so we decide to walk. I don’t have the energy to negotiate a taxi or figure out the bus system.
We walk up Viale Trastevere, dragging our luggage behind us and shortly after, we enter into mayhem. Our landlord had warned us about the flea market. What we had failed to comprehend was that the market took place on two streets a block down from Viale Trastevere, but that it also over time had spilled out and up to the avenue. Those didn’t have tables or booths, though. They were mainly gypsies sitting on the sidewalk with a cloth in front of them, with wares they could have found in garbage bins: used shoes, CDs with broken covers, necklaces missing some of their fake stones, broken or well-loved toys. Regardless, hordes of people stop and check out their wares; I even see money changing hands.
To our tired brain, the sight of all these people is bewildering and astonishing. Navigating a suitcase through there is so difficult we end up walking in the street. Once we find our street, we get confused by the numbering system of the building, and end up almost getting lost among the booths of the real flea market, which is more crowded than anything I’ve ever seen. Vendors yell the price of their wares, buyers dig through a mountain of stuff, sometimes three or four deep. The noise is almost deafening, and the sun, hot in a deep blue sky, is hot. We’re wilting.
Finally we spy a face we think might be our landlord, waiting for us behind a grill metal door. Eureka, we found it!
In Rome — First Impressions Part 2, my next post, follow us on our first trek into the City and some commentary on what we –blearily– see.